About a month ago my good friend and great photographer Paul Alers called me and asked if I would like to help out on local high school reunion shoot.
The deal was Paul and I would shoot a class photo for every year of Fort Hunt High School graduates gathered at a reunion that was held this past Sunday in Alexandria, Va.
Sounds easy enough Paul, I said. How many people are expected to attend? More than 1,000 people he replied. (Be sure to see below for a another photo and six great tips for photographing groups.)
That may not sound like a lot until you are told that the last student graduated from Fort Hunt in the mid-eighties as the Fairfax County, VA school was closed forever in 1985.
The big day finally came this past Sunday. We arrived early at Fort Hunt Park on the GW Parkway outside Alexandria, Va. to prepare for what would be about 4-5 straight hours of shooting group photos. I was assigned to photograph 12 classes of graduates, numbering in size from about 35 people to close to 80 graduates in one class.
At the bottom of the list after the class of 1981, I saw the words “All Groups 850.” Hmm, that is interesting, is the the full number of people we are shooting on all of the classes?
“No,” said Paul, that is when we do the entire group shot of all of the Alumni attending the reunion. “Okay,” I said, that should be interesting.
We started photographing class portraits at 11 a.m. Stormy weather had been forecast for the D.C. area so we were wondering at points how the day would unfold.
The reunion was held at a very nice picnic area but there were no indoor options at the park for group photos of 50, 60, 70 and 80 people, not to mention a shot with 800 plus people.
Fort Hunt Park features a real military fort that dates back to the Spanish American War and was also used during World War II. You can walk up and down the concrete multileveled structure. It provided a great location and backdrop for the larger groups being photographed.
The day went well. The sky was overcast for a good portion of the party which reduced heavy shadows, the heat and harsh sunlight. All of the graduates I worked with were good humored and patient, including those folks who had to stand in a blazing sun later in the day while we set up their group photos when there was not cloud cover.
Shortly after 3 p.m. it was time for the big group photo and hundreds of graduates migrated from the picnic area to the fort. We agreed the fort would be the best place to shoot such
a large gathering and Paul aptly directed everyone to fill in all the levels of the Fort.
This photo I shot is actually a panorama consisting of six vertical frames. The photos were stitched together automatically using Adobe Photoshop.
A super wide angle lens could about cover a group this big, but then you would lose a lot of detail and gain a good deal of distortion, especially on the ends of the photo. The trick with shooting panoramas is to always shoot in vertical sections. Don’t shoot too tight and try to leave a little space around your subjects. This will make post production much easier.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the shoot. It was a novelty of sorts. How many times do you get to be in a photo with so many people? How many times do you have the opportunity to take a photo this big? It was definitely an experience I will never forget. From my rough count, I think at the least, between 300 and 400 people (and a dog or two) ended up posing for this giant group photo. Definitely the largest group photo I have ever had anything to do with.
Roughly an hour after this photo was taken the storm the Weather Channel promised arrived. The heavens opened up and a downpour ensued. Boy, were we lucky!
Whether you are photographing your family or your kids’ baseball team or a wedding group photo, here are some helpful tips I have picked up that will make the shoot go smoother.
1. Scout out Your Location– before you start arranging your subjects, pick out a location that will be suitable for the size and personality of your group. If your first choice is outdoors, be sure to pick out a back up that is indoors, unless of course you are photographing hundreds of people at an outdoors park. Paul actually scouted out Fort Hunt Park a couple of weeks before the shoot so we would know what the best spots were for large small group photos. This made a big difference. If you are shooting multiple group photos in a relatively short period of time, the right setting or background is so important. If you pick a lousy, cluttered backdrop, it will impact all the photos you shoot in that space.
2. Have any lighting and tripods set up before you start arranging. People having their photos taken are not particularly fond of standing and waiting as you set up your equipment, especially if it is 90 degrees outside.
3. Have a clear plan of what your photo is going to look like, i.e. how many rows of people, will there be people sitting etc. The more detailed your plan is the better.
4. If possible, recruit what I call a photo cowboy/cowgirl who can help round up all the people in your group photo. This is particularly helpful at weddings or reunions. Hopefully this is someone who knows some or all the people you are shooting. If they scream at the one wise guy in the group who is acting up, that is ok. If you do it, you are in trouble.
5. Project confidence with your group. The larger the group the more crucial this is. If you are shooting a wedding group of 20 or more people (people who usually would rather be at the bar sipping a cold one than listening to a photographer direct them) you need to demonstrate you know what your are doing. The minute that confidence evaporates the group will run wild and things will get ugly. During my time as a wedding studio manager and coach, on those rare instances when we had unhappy clients, the most typical complaint was “our photographer did not direct us and seemed to have no ideas or plans.” People can sense disorganization pretty quickly and they do not like it.
6. Most importantly, make it fun, fast and take everything in stride. On a hot day, you might have a grump or two who will shout “take the damn photo.” No worries, they are just trying to add to the atmosphere, do not take it personally or be defensive, just keep on smiling. The quicker and more confidently you work, the happier your subjects will be and the the better your photos will turn out. During the dozen group photos I shot Sunday, I always tried to be at the top of the steps when the graduates came back up the hill after the photo shoot. I thanked as many of them as I could and let them know I appreciated their patience and cooperation. Without their help, I have no photos. It is a two way street.